Season 2 Episode 25

A while back I read a thought-provoking article in the New Yorker entitled How the Internet Turned Us Into Content Machines: Two new books examine how social media traps users in a brutal race to the bottom. If you’re interested in reading it, I’ve linked the article in the show notes. The title itself contains an interesting expression, which is a race to the bottom. Let me repeat the subtitle again. It’s “two new books examine how social media traps users in a brutal race to the bottom.” 

A race to the bottom is an expression we tend to use in politics and economics to describe a situation in which companies and countries try to compete with each other by cutting wages and living standards for workers, and the production of goods is moved to the place where the wages are lowest and the workers have the fewest rights. It has a very negative connotation and is used to highlight how certain competitive systems give everyone incentives to make things worse for society as a whole.

So the question is, what does it mean to talk about social media trapping users in a race to the bottom? Well, the idea of a race to the bottom is that you’re operating in an unregulated, competitive system that leads to worse results for everyone. The author Kyle Chayka contends that a lot of social media content is of bad quality and mainly designed to go viral. We’re basically drowning in a sea of cute animal videos, makeup tutorials and self-help memes.

Now, I’m the first one to admit that I spend more time watching chihuahua videos on Instagram than I’d like to admit and I wonder what this is doing to my attention span, that is, the amount of time I can focus on a single task.

But I think there’s a bigger problem than these so-called shitposts. The thing is, it occurred to me recently that the real problem that no one is talking about is that there’s actually a lot of excellent, top-notch content online, whether it be podcasts, YouTube videos or Instagram accounts. My question is – what’s the effect on us of having unlimited access to this random mixture of the trivial and the transformative? 

For example, on a typical day I might spend thirty minutes listening to an insightful lecture on psychology and then follow it up with another one on astrology or some random short video that pops up in my feed. For me the real problem is that we consume the good quality content in the same way we do the crappy stuff. And some days I might spend a couple of hours listening to a mix of podcasts and YouTube videos and most of it is serious. But I’m not fully there, I’m kind of treating it like it’s just there to keep me company.

So I was thinking it might be good to limit how much content I consume and go back to reading more books. We don’t get the same stimulation from reading as we do from a video, but the insights we gain from reading are likely to be more long-lasting. Let’s say you’re watching a video about changing habits or becoming healthier. Reading a whole book on the topic may seem too time-consuming, but I’d be willing to bet that people who are committed to reading a whole book on a topic are more likely to implement the advice than those who take in the exact same information in a short video. Another option is to start a journaling practice to reflect on whatever it is you’re learning online and only watch or listen to what you think is worth writing about. 

If you’re listening to someone talk about a topic you want to learn about and apply to your life but aren’t willing to spend at least some time writing and reflecting on how you can implement those ideas, well, maybe you were never really that committed to using that information for its intended purpose. No judgement, I do this all the time. But it’s something I’d like to change.

Speaking of which, for those of you who are teachers of English you might be interested in my upcoming free event on Saturday 27 May. It’s specifically for those of you who don’t speak English as your first language and want to improve your language skills while also developing as a teacher. I’ll be sending out an invitation to all of my subscribers later this week and the session will consist of a group discussion of an episode of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain called How Your Beliefs Shape Reality. I’m linking it in the show notes so you can go ahead and listen to the episode first and decide if you’d like to participate in the online event. The idea is to put into practice the advice I’m giving today, namely to reflect on insights from a top-notch psychology podcast and consider how these ideas might impact the way you teach. If you listen to this episode and, like me, are blown away by all of the fascinating ideas to unpack, well then this event is for you.

I’m always happy to hear from my listeners. What did you make of today’s episode? Do you think it’s necessary to keep track of what you consume online? Let me know by sending me an email to

Now, here’s today’s vocabulary.

a race to the bottom: This is a socio-economic term referring to a situation where companies or countries reduce workers living standards or working conditions to gain a competitive advantage. It often leads to a downward spiral of standards.

With the lack of regulation in the industry, many fear that there could be a race to the bottom as companies cut corners to reduce costs.

wage: an amount of money that you earn for working, usually according to how many hours or days you work each week or month

Jobs in the factories used to pay a decent wage, but those jobs are gone now.

contend: (formal) argue or state that something is true

Some astronomers contend that the universe may be younger than previously thought.

attention span: This refers to the length of time a person can concentrate on a task without becoming distracted.

With the rise of social media and smartphones, many people are concerned that our collective attention span is getting shorter.

top-notch: This is an adjective meaning of the highest quality or excellent.

The restaurant offers top-notch service, ensuring every customer has an unforgettable dining experience.

I’d be willing to bet that…: This is a chunk used to express strong belief or certainty about an outcome or fact.

I’d be willing to bet that their team will win the tournament; they’ve been playing exceptionally well this season.

be blown away by something: (colloquial) be really impressed or amazed by something 

The audience was blown away by the band’s incredible performance; they had never seen such energy and passion on stage before.

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